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Agile Marketing: Is It Really That Different? A Data-Driven Perspective

Marketing agility is headed great places. But does the data back up its use?

At a recent business agility event, a discussion broke out with other coaches about whether we needed expertise in the kind of work a team does in order to effectively coach them.
 
The accepted coaching wisdom is that you don’t necessarily need the skills to execute work from a team’s backlog to be their coach. In theory I agree, but I constantly hear the marketers I work with bemoan their difficulties in making the intellectual leap from “regular” agile training to their own day-to-day work.
 
Whatever our backgrounds, agile coaches, trainers, and facilitators need to acknowledge that as new parts of our organizations make the switch to agile, they’re going to need different kinds of support.
 
Groups like marketing, human resources, and sales are emerging as the next frontier in agile adoption, and we need to be prepared to adapt for each of them. My own qualitative experience over the last five years of working with agile marketers has driven this point home to me, but I don’t expect anyone to simply take my word for it. Instead, I want to use recent data to reinforce the need for training, and maybe even coaching, non-IT teams differently.
 
Data sources for this comparison
 
As I said, Agile marketing is my own area of expertise, so I’m going to confine my argument to that domain.
 
In addition, I have a State of Agile Marketing Report that I can compare in a fairly apples-to-apples way with the long-running State of Agile Report conducted by VersionOne.
 
Those two reports will be the source of my quantitative data for this piece; you can get more details about their methods and respondents by visiting their respective report pages linked above.
 
Differing adoption levels
 
The first (and possibly most obvious) difference between agile software development and agile marketing is their adoption. It’s pretty clear that agile frameworks are the accepted methods for managing work in that profession, with adoption rates of 97% reported this year.
 
Agile marketing, on the other hand, came in at only 32% adoption in 2019.


 
What this means from a training/coaching perspective is that when working with marketers we can’t assume the same basic level of understanding that most software developers bring to their jobs. Developers may have picked up some bad habits, or let agile best practices fall by the wayside over time, but the vast majority of marketers don’t even know what daily standup meetings are, much less how they’re supposed to work.
 
If you find yourself working with marketing, or any non-IT group, plan to spend WAY more time than you think you need to establishing the what, why, and how behind agile practices. Don’t assume any existing knowledge, or you run the risk of people bringing erroneous assumptions into the team. The simple term “backlog,” for example, creates all kinds of problems for marketing teams. It has extraordinarily negative connotations for many people; they think it’s where work goes when it’s basically never going to get done.
 
So if a trainer buzzes right by this term without providing background on what it is, why it’s used, or how it’s supposed to work, there could be all kinds of misconceptions remaining in people’s minds.
 
Mismatched maturity
 
As you would imagine, the huge discrepancies in adoption levels also mean that teams report very different maturity levels too.


 
You can see that the biggest gaps here are at the extremes of the spectrum. Marketers are almost twice as likely to be less than a year into their adoption, and developers are twice as likely to be 5+ years in.
 
Interestingly, marketers were also given a fifth option, “Don’t know/not fully agile,” and 18% of them made that selection. Once again, as coaches and trainers we need to be aware of what we’re walking into with these groups. Even marketing teams who have gotten agile up and running aren’t likely to be as comfortable with it as their development colleagues.
 
How agile manifests in practices
 
Not surprisingly, when we get down to how agile is used on a daily basis within these two groups the differences are stark.


 
First let’s talk about the practices themselves. Happily, both groups report that daily standup is their most commonly used agile practice. Retrospectives also made it into the top five in both reports.
 
After that, however, things diverge.
 
Sprint/iteration planning is used by 80% of software developers, but only 27% of marketers.
 
The Sprint review meeting is likewise far more preferred in a development environment; 80% of developers use it compared to just 22% of marketers. (We’ll see why this is when we examine the frameworks being used by each group.)


 
The gaps themselves are quite interesting, but what’s particularly interesting to me is how many practices were selected by a majority of developers compared to marketers. While five practices were selected by over two-thirds of developers, no single practice was selected by over 45% of marketers.
 
Essentially, marketers just aren’t using as many Agile practices as their development counterparts. Not surprising given the adoption and maturity numbers we’ve already looked at, but crucial information nonetheless. There are many more tools in the Agile tool chest that marketers could be accessing.
 
Reframing the framework conversation
 
The logical conclusion from these last few data points is that agile marketing doesn’t look much like agile software development in their day-to-day manifestations. (Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing can be the subject of a future article.)
 
If we needed further proof of this, we need look no further than the actual frameworks being reported by marketers and developers.
 
This year the numbers are exact opposites, with 54% of developers saying they use Scrum, and the exact same percentage of marketers reporting the use of hybrid frameworks.


 
In my experience this is the biggest distinction between training for agile marketing and agile software development.
 
Marketers are far more likely to end up needing a hybrid framework to make agile work for them over the long term, so we can’t just teach them Scrum and move on.
 
Kanban, Lean, theory of constraints, design thinking — these all need to play a role in the evolution of an agile marketing team.
 
When they try to squeeze themselves into a rigid adoption plan (even if it would very likely be effective for a development team), marketers get frustrated and often abandon the effort entirely. They assume agile doesn’t work for marketing, when really it was just one particular flavor of agile.
 
Why we all love agile
 
The good news out of both these reports is that at the end of the day we’re all in this for the same reasons. Developers, marketers, and any other group for that matter, all enjoy similar benefits when they can make agile work for them. The ability to change gears quickly and respond to shifting priorities, visibility into project status, alignment with business goals, happier employees, and increased speed to market are all upsides reported by both groups.
 
So yes, agile looks different inside different groups, but we’re ultimately striving for similar objectives. As long as we recognize the uniqueness of context and remain open to new manifestations of agility, we can be stewards of agile adoption across the organization.